Writing and the fine art of people watching: part 2

The human hand – a tool of communication

At the sight of him, Ali pressed her hands to her cheeks. ‘Good grief. You can’t go out wearing that.’

The above is exactly what happened a few months ago when my husband ‘The Bearded Wonder’, dressed himself in a pair of floral patterned shorts and a clashing floral shirt. By writing the body language there’s no need to qualify my words because the emotion is clear. The gesture does all the hard work. (And yes, he changed his shirt!) Including body language is the ‘show-not-tell’ approach to writing which gives physical depth to any character and interaction.

For example, without speaking, humans have a number of ways to say yes or no: A nod of the head or a shake, a thumbs up or down, a waggle of the forefinger.

The face is where we often look first for non-verbal clues, but our hands and arms also convey an enormous amount of information: pointing the way, beckoning, indicating numbers, insulting others, calming a situation, emphasising emotions and enhancing our spoken word.

But writing those gestures can be difficult. The picture above is an ‘air precision grip’ but when writing fiction, use of that official classification would be clumsy and uninformative. The gesture usually indicates that the person making it is seeking accuracy or precision and they would wave the arm back and forth in time with their words. Would we need to know that in a story? Possibly not.

Most readers understand ‘flicking the V sign’ or ‘giving a thumbs up,’ and we would write something along the lines of ‘jabbing a forefinger skyward’ rather than stating that a character ‘raised a vertical forefinger baton gesture’, so it’s not necessary to know the official names for gestures, but it is important to understand when, why and how they are used.

How we place our hands and arms is a vital part of body language, so writers need to find ways of conveying body language to inform readers, make characters realistic and emphasise the meaning of dialogue – a tricky thing to get right.

When speaking, women tend to use more hand gestures than men and I’m one for waving my arms and hands around like a maniac when I talk. But it would be confusing for the reader and a barrier to the flow of a story if all gestures were described in endless detail. Very off-putting – so be choosy about what to convey as far as non-verbal clues.

Here are a few classic hand gestures which can easily be described and used when writing;

  • The nose tap – to indicate conspiracy or secrecy
  • The temple tap/circle – stupidity, difficulty thinking, or ‘it’s all in here’
  • The forehead swipe – ‘phew’ (followed by a hand flick)
  • The brow scratch – puzzlement
  • The earlobe tug – a thinking gesture, uncertainty, or ‘listen up’
  • The ear cup – ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying’
  • The fingertip kiss – to blow a kiss, pleasure, tasty
  • The hand chop – used rhythmically to emphasise speech, assertive
  • The fist – arrives with rising anger, used in anger
  • The palms together praying gesture – can mean ‘God willing’, relief, – or, when touched to lips, a thinking gesture.
  • The palm-down-calm-down – to de-escalate tension.
  • The arms wide palms up – to demonstrate peaceful intent or as a goading action
  • The upturned claw – frustration
  • Rubbing palms together back and forth – anticipation of success
  • Dusting the palms – ‘done and dusted’, finished, done
  • Jerking a thumb – ‘get lost’ or indicating a direction

And the list goes on and on:

Arms give away obvious clues such as the defensive crossing of them, rubbing a forearm to self-sooth when nervous, or their wide open use to give or accept an embrace.

I hope these have been helpful reminders as to the vital use of hand (and arm) body-language in creative writing, but try not to over-do it. So, I’ll take my own advice and wave goodbye. Writing to do…


The Bloodline Will by A B Morgan coming soon…

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